One of the things I love about American cities is the wonderful mix of architecture. From Victorian houses to the grand designs of the early 20th century, to sweeping modern skyscrapers. The city of Oakland, just a short metro ride from downtown San Francisco, was no exception. Although, as I discovered, it’s best not to go on a Sunday…
The Varied Architecture of Oakland
I have to confess that my first reaction was one of disappointment. Emerging from Lake Merritt Station and walking towards the lake, I wasn’t impressed by the square concrete blocks. But my view began to change as I passed the neoclassical Scottish Rite Center, and moved towards the city centre.
Judging by the buildings, Oakland was a prosperous place a hundred years ago. The styles are varied, but always eye-catching. The 22-storey Tribune Tower, built in 1928, was inspired by St Mark’s Campanile in Venice, while the City Hall (1914) is in the Beaux-Arts style and resembles a giant wedding cake. By way of contrast, The Cathedral Building (also built in 1914) is an impressive example of Gothic Revival architecture. (The Cathedral Building is actually an office block: the name refers to its style rather than its purpose.) Elsewhere you will spot Art Deco and other styles common to the period.
Then there is the 21st century. We walked through the ultra-modern City Center, with its tall glass towers and modern artworks. It was a Sunday morning, and very quiet, so I had to try to imagine what it would be like here on a weekday when it was buzzing with people and activity.
But I had come to Oakland to see Preservation Park. The 20th century building boom meant the destruction of countless Victorian homes, and Preservation Park is an attempt to protect the city’s architectural heritage. It is a collection of houses in a variety of styles, built between 1870 and 1911. Some are in their original location; others were moved here.
Here you get a glimpse of what Oakland would have been like in the late 1800s. There would have been large houses and tree-lined avenues. (Oakland was named for the streets of oaks that have largely disappeared now.) Even the smallest cottages would have had gardens, creating a park-like environment. When you walk beyond Preservation Park and into Old Oakland you can still see the remains of many older dwellings, giving you an idea of the extent and atmosphere of the city as it once was.
So why did I say don’t visit on a Sunday? Partly because much of the town is eerily silent. Preservation Park is a business park as well as a conservation area, and the café and information centre are closed at weekends. But also because we struggled to find anything to eat or drink in the centre of town. However, all was not lost. We walked down to Jack London Square, by the waterfront. A modern leisure area, with shops and restaurants: this part of town is lively and bustling every day of the week.